Exeter: Boom City

It will come as a bit of a frightener to most people that they are thinking of stopping live firing on parts of Dartmoor. For hundreds of years, the Ministry of Defence (formerly the Corps Blimey) has had an inalienable right to blow up bits and pieces of our national heritage, to threaten ramblers and other ne'er-do-wells, to terrorise sheep and buzzards, to put the jitters up the convicts and the Baskervilles, and to put up signs all over the place with skulls and crossbones on them.

In the days of cavepersons, stone age squaddies threw live rocks at woolly elephants they'd picked up in a mammoth half-term, half-price sale, together with some knock-down leather sofas (only 1000 pelts, reduced from 2000! Must be seen to be believed! Offer closes yesterday!)

And in Good King Arthur's times, when Merlin and Guinevere inhabited Camelot (somewhere near Gidleigh), helmeted knights threw lances at Lancelot (how he got his name), shouting "It could be you!" until the dark ages and the triple rollover killed the art of conversation.

In the wars with Napoleon, the grenadiers pretended the tors were French foot-soldiers, and lobbed whizz-bangs and bottles of exploding scrumpy at them.

Yes, throughout history, the hills have been alive (unless they've received a dead hit) with the sound of gunfire.

The message from the army has been Think Tanks. And the message from the think tanks has been Think Army.

And now we are told that they are thinking - yes, thinking - of behaving like miserly brewers, and putting a cork in their barrels. They're going to have a shot at not having a shot. Business will not be booming. The beach will for the first time be home to more shells than the moor. And there'll be no flying of any flak of convenience.

In fact, the army will be forced to give themselves some new performance targets, as they say in modern military parlance.

Of course, perhaps we should worry. If our forces are poised to invade the Mesopotamian wastes controlled by Saddam Nuisance, then they might find themselves in serious trouble. Since Iraq is pretty much like Dartmoor, only without the tourist information signs, a ban on live firing in the vicinity of ramblers could be said to be a poor preparation for our forces.

It may be a sad day for Devon if the Bush Rangers are unable to make a breakthrough in the Middle East, and all because they ban themselves from exploding imaginary people just because some misguided souls want to yomp across Dartmoor with a thermos, bullet-proof anoraks and out-of-date ordnance survey maps.

(Funny that, incidentally, ramblers wandering about with ordnance surveys, isn't it? Ordnance is artillery, and they're following maps about it? Well, ordnance is actually short for "ordinance", which has to do with measurement. Thought I'd give you that one for the pub quiz).

The thing is, if they can't blast away with rockets, missiles and raw recruits on Dartmoor, then where can they do it? If Yes Tor becomes No Tor as far as the MOD is concerned, where can they practise their banging, as it were?

Obviously, we want to make sure that we meet government priorities. We have to ensure that targets are met head on. There might be some scope disguising the soldiers involved as footballers, and seeing if Exeter City can blow a few holes in the opposition net. There might be some obscure FIFA rule about not firing live balls, I suppose (although even being quicker on the draw might help our tragic football team).

Still, surely we could let the ramblers ramble, scramble. and amble in peace, and find a better place than Dartmoor to place an outsize Dartboard?

Now you've probably not noticed this, but recently there has been a great deal of talk about knocking down parts of Exeter, and replacing it with brand new bits.

What I want to know is this. Why have contractors been hired by the Council to take out MFI, Sidwell Street, Princesshay, the Rougemont Hotel, and Bedford Street, when the Ministry of Defence wants to take potshots in National Trust territory? Wouldn't it have been cheaper if they brought in the boys in green and brown uniforms to reduce the city to ruins?

A couple of well-aimed salvoes, and we could get Exeter recreated as a pile of interesting rubble.

And just think what an autumn tourist attraction it would be if sappers and men in berets were parachuted in to hit the city centre for six!

The leaves would fall gently from the weeping trees, conkers would drop softly to the pavements, shoppers would be caringly shifted for a week or two to safe places like Marsh Barton and Beacon Heath, and then the army could let rip.

Boom! Debenham's Tower!

Boom! The Civic Centre!

Boom! The Paris Street Bus Station!

Boom! County Hall!

These are just some of the accidental side-effects which might result from a more radical plan. I don't believe that any of the above are listed buildings, and just think what pleasure would be brought to the local population if these eyesores could be knocked, at the press of a military button, from the landscape.

At the same time, our shootists would be keeping their eyes in, since Baghdad is doubtless not unlike Exeter, except that there is no Harlequin Centre in Baghdad.

Which reminds me.

Boom! The Harlequin Centre!

Boom! St. George's Hall!

For too long we have been pussyfooting about in Exeter, saving this and saving that, cobbling Gandy Street, and putting in bus lanes. Instead we should be claiming a brand new town on the MOD insurance.

I therefore propose a new anthem for Exeter. It goes "Home, Home On The Range", and although there are no antelopes in Devon, as far as I know, it should be just the tune for Exonians to sing lustily on the banks of the river, as the army pounds (or if you prefer it, euros) the city to bits.

On Dartmoor, the ponies will graze in private. And we will be set free. Have People's Choice thought about this option yet?

From Express and Echo